Undergraduate Researcher Profile: Trisha Patel (Cognitive Science)

Trisha Patel started at UCSC in the fall of 2011 and majors in Cognitive Science.  In the fall of 2012, she contacted a new professor in the Psychology Department, Dr. Benjamin Storm, to ask if she could get involved with the research in the Memory Lab, which focuses broadly on human memory with a special focus on the causes and consequences of forgetting.  Ms. Patel was accepted into the lab and continues to work with Dr. Storm.  Her undergraduate research project from her sophomore year was published in April, 2014 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition.

Ms. Patel complements her undergraduate research during the academic year with summer research programs.  In the summer of 2013, she particiapated in a research program at the University of Rochester with Dr. Benjamin Hayden  on decision-making theories.  In the summer of 2014, Ms. Patel did research at NASA Ames through the Advanced Studies Laboratory (ASL) Program with Dr. Elizabeth Wenzel (shown in the picture with Ms. Patel). The project focused on perception and visual cognition and its relation to human's ability to navigate through space.

How do you define undergraduate research?

Undergraduate research is finding a way to ask interesting questions on a topic you understand. Generally these topics are introduced in various coursework and catch your attention. When you find something you enjoy learning about, asking important questions becomes easy. Research is a part of an undergraduate experience that cannot be obtained in a classroom. It allows you to quickly expand on your understanding of an area and teaches you how to approach related courses. You are no longer relaying information back to the professor, but you are expanding on what you know in innovative ways.

What is your research topic?

At UCSC, I research learning and memory. My past work looked into how forgetting is an important aspect of creative thought. I am currently looking at how imagery influences encoding or recalling a specific event. At NASA, I focused on perception and visual cognition and its relation to our ability to navigate through space. Our goal was to delineate when and where our sensory information helps us locate items in a virtual environment. We hoped this would give us better insight into the type of technology to mimic sensory information would be included in space suits for exploration on the surface of Mars.

What is the Advanced Studies Laboratory (ASL) and how is it related to UCSC?

ASL incorporates various topics in its partnership with NASA Ames Research center. UCSC is an important affiliate of ASL and has helped students find internships and programs that match their interests. The most important aspect of ASL is its diversity in backgrounds of the students recruited. While I found myself applying cognitive science and human computer interaction, other students were researching biology or engineering...Each student was able to find a way to apply their knowledge learned at UCSC to catch up on and continue projects being done at NASA Ames.

We had weekly talks..(by) our fellow students researchers and NASA Ames held biweekly colloquia. The talks held by NASA Ames included accomplished scientists and informed interns on the various projects being done at Ames....During the world cup, I went to a talk on aerospace dynamics of soccer balls!

How did you become interested in cognitive science?

I initially wasn’t sure what major to choose when I started UCSC. I thought I’d develop on my interests from high school, but even that was scattered from art to math to psychology. I spent one night looking through all the possible majors at UCSC and what courses I had to take for each one. It didn’t take long before I was intrigued by cognitive science. However, I was reluctant to push aside my other interests, so I still find a way to incorporate them in my life.

Before you came to UCSC, did you know any researchers?

No, but I came to UCSC knowing it was one of the top universities for research. Ironically, my current mentor, Dr. Benjamin Storm, came to UCSC during my sophomore year when I started looking for research opportunities.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your current project?

Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to do with the all the data you spent months collecting. From designing the experiment to running the participants, you know what you are trying to look for, but sometimes you are surprised by other aspects of the experiment...

What have you learned from participating in this project?

I no longer think of space with an untouchable sci-fi glow. While we are not at the level of the classic Star Wars films, it’s not an impossible future. While we probably won’t be able to travel to galaxies anytime soon, there’s nothing unrealistic about exploring and inhabiting our solar system. Sometimes I think about the day that it won’t be international flights, but interplanetal flights that require a passport.

Even so, there will be drastic differences from living on earth and living on another planet. My job as NASA was to understand how this difference would influence our ability to make other judgments and how to remedy failures.

Who has been the most important mentor for you, and why?

Dr. Benjamin Storm has been the most...helpful mentor I have had. From the beginning he gave me the opportunity to work in his lab, even when many faculty members are not inclined to take an entering sophomore. He mentored me through various project proposals and never hesitated to meet with me to discuss my ideas and future paths. Dr. Storm has been a defining part of my undergraduate career. The experience he has provided for me, and his entire lab, has provided opportunities that I do not think I would have received from any other professor.

How do you balance your projects with your classes and extracurricular activities?

I’ve generally tried to structure my classes to help me gain background knowledge from my projects. For example, I took perception and visual spatial cognition before I started working at NASA (which complemented these courses). Most of catching up on various projects at NASA required me to know the relevant background developed in my courses. A large portion of my selection of courses has been based on what would help me better understand areas I am interested in researching.

As for other activities, such as work, I try to tutor (as part of Learning Support Services) subjects I want to understand past the basics.

As for my interests outside of school, being in the beautiful environment UCSC offers makes it easy for me to go for runs through the woods, find rocks to climb on the beach or waves to surf in the ocean. Together these work to balance my stress level and keep me happy.

What are your plans for after you finish at UCSC?

I hope to go to graduate school, looking more at both theoretical and applied research in cognitive science. NASA has also offered various positions for me to continue working with them if I stay local.

What are your long term professional goals?

There are a few avenues I’ve considered past graduate school. NASA offers various post-docs in areas I am interested in. There is also the tempting idea of running my own lab at a university. However, these are both very ambitious goals, but I hope I’ll be able follow my father’s words of advice and ultimately find something that I genuinely enjoy.

Interview compiled by: Rebecca Anderson
Pictures from Trisha Patel

September, 2014